Tunisian Prime Minister resigns to end political deadlock

Prime Minister Ali Larayedh, of the ruling Islamist Ennahda party, announced on January 9 that he had handed his resignation to President Moncef Marzouki. His resignation came as part of a blueprint to put the democratic transition in Tunisia back on track after months of political deadlock. Larayedh is set to be replaced within 15 days by Mehdi Jomaa, the prime minister- designate, at the head of a government of technocrats that will lead the country to new elections. "The president will appoint the new Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa shortly, and he will present his new cabinet in the next few days," Larayedh said.

Compromise with the opposition
Ennahda late last year reached a compromise with main opposition Nidaa Tounes to hand over power once parties had finished writing the new constitution, set a date for elections and appointed an electoral council to oversee the vote. Much of that agreement has been done: during the night of January 8th the assembly appointed a nine-member electoral commission and the national assembly is voting on the last clauses of the new charter this week.

The National Constituent Assembly (NCA) has scheduled the adoption of the entire 146-article constitution by the third anniversary of the revolution on January 14. Deputies will participate in a general vote where two thirds majority will be needed in order to enact Tunisia’s second constitution.

This week, the NCA adopted several articles of the draft constitution. On January 9 it approved an article that would enshrine equality of opportunity between the sexes in public life and aim for equality of representation in elected bodies. Tunisia adopted a secular constitution at independence in 1956 that gave women far greater rights than anywhere else in the Arab world. There had been fears among secular politicians, which Ennahda has been at pains to disprove, that it would seek to roll back those rights.

Gap between Islamists and secular leaders
Tunisia’s ruling Islamic Ennahda party won the most seats in the national assembly selected in the first elections after the fall of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, but the party struggled with a widening gap between Islamists and secular leaders. Crisis points were reached when the economic situation deteriorated and with the assassinations of leftwing opposition leaders Chokri Belaid in February, and then Mohammed Brahmi in July. The opposition has accused Ennahda of failing to rein the radical Islamists, whom they blame for the killings. Tunisia has struggled with divisions over the political role of Islam in one of the Muslim's world's most secular countries. The July assassination brought the secular opposition onto the streets to demand the fall of a government that critics accused of pushing an Islamist agenda.

Economic challenges
Recent steps towards political reconciliation came against a backdrop of increased social unrest across the country due to economic problems. Central Tunisia in particular, where a young street vendor touched off the 2011 uprising by setting himself on fire in protest at his impoverished daily life, has seen a number of protests in recent days. A new vehicle tax, which came into force this year, has prompted nationwide protests with demonstrators blocking major highways. After two days of protests in several cities, Larayedh said earlier on January 9 that the government would suspend the tax reform.

One of the biggest challenges for Tunisia’s new government will be to tackle economic reforms in order to cut back its deficit, while at the same time it needs to manage the rising popular discontent over the high living costs and lack of economic opportunities since the revolution.

Sources: The Guardian, Reuters, BBC, Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya

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